Every time I start looking ahead to next season for the Tar Heels and the many question marks that come with it, my mind always comes back around to one reassuring point: Joel Berry II is back for his senior season. No matter what happens with the rest of the team and how certain players develop, Berry is back and hopefully (fingers crossed) fully healthy.
What Berry did in the NCAA tournament, the way he fought through two bum ankles and willed UNC to a National Championship, was the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed. It went beyond basketball skills. It was pure heart and toughness. After enduring the most heartbreaking end to a season an athlete can suffer the year prior, Berry simply made up his mind that things would end differently the second time around.
From a player’s perspective, Berry has accomplished about everything you could ask for. He’s a national champion. He’s an ACC champion (both regular season and tournament). He was the ACC Tournament MVP in 2016. He was the Final Four MOP in 2017. The list goes on. Now, though, he will take on a new task.
Berry returns to a team that has undergone several key losses to the NBA and graduation. Without Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, and Tony Bradley in the fold, he will be needed now more than ever.
With the addition of graduate transfer Cam Johnson as well as returning upperclassmen Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams, Berry is surrounded by a nice veteran core in the backcourt. The frontcourt is a much different story, however.
The only returning big man is the six-foot-seven stretch four Luke Maye, who will be joined by three unproven freshmen. Roy Williams always prefers for his teams to play inside out so it’s pretty telling when he comes out and says that his team will play more small ball next season and rely mostly on its guards.
This puts even more pressure on Berry, who is used to having ample bigs down low to relieve some of the scoring burden. Last season, Berry averaged 14.7 points per game, which was second on the team behind Jackson. Yes, it’s true that the top two scorers were guards, but the trio of Hicks, Meeks, and Bradley combined for over 31 a game. Either way, there is plenty of lost production to make up for.
As far as areas he needs to focus on during the offseason, Berry doesn’t have any glaring flaws in his game. What he lacks in size and athleticism he has made up for with the extra hard work he’s exerted in the gym and the weight room. If Berry’s first step doesn’t beat his defender, his strength around the basket will. His range extends well beyond the three-point line and he’s got a nasty pull up game. Just ask Grayson Allen.
On the defensive side of the ball, Berry is a pest. He has the energy and quick feet to put constant pressure on the ball throughout an entire game. His defensive intensity leads to many loose balls and transition buckets. This aspect of his game will be especially crucial without as many big bodies down low to help out.
Basically, any way you swing it, this is Berry’s team. He may have a lot on his plate, but it shouldn’t be anything he can’t handle. As long as Joel Berry II is running things, don’t ever count out the Tar Heels.